Brownies: a recipe and an opinion

Chilled brownies carved into tiny unctuous squares and served on a cold slab of granite. Photo taken in daylight with the Leica X1.

Chilled brownies carved into tiny unctuous squares and served on a cold slab of granite. Photo taken in daylight with the Leica X1.

Brownies, it is taught, are not small flat squares of chocolate cake. With no chemical leaveners and no aeration, they are (or should be) more of a cross between cookies and fudge, dense and solid and just gooey enough. What’s more, with simple ingredients, a one-bowl mixing method, no beating until fluffy and a high tolerance for inexactness, they are one American classic that defies the usual laws of baking, shockingly easy to make even for the novice baker. Brownies are also wonderfully adaptable to additions of flavor extracts, spices, toasted nuts, candy bits, dried fruit or candied citrus peel (orange in particular, if you ask me).

For years the brownies I made at home fell short of the ideal sold at upscale coffee shops, though invariably all my attempts constituted a delicious chocolate delivery system of one kind or another. There were cocoa powder brownies, olive oil brownies and (most often) Mark Bittman’s classic brownies from How to Cook Everything, but none produced that rich density I was after (though all came closest when served cold). And then one day I tried the last recipe I ever tried, from the Baked bakery's debut cookbook. Lush, easy—perfect. In time, I went on to streamline their formula and adapt it to both my palate and the standard size of a package of butter in Poland. Here it is, with a three-way ingredient list featuring quantities calculated for different pan sizes (and appetites).

I should note that a friend of mine claims that my brownies are too moist and chewy. Not crumbly or delicate enough, she says (sometimes even as she’s reaching for the next brownie). So if you want delicate, you might prefer to get yourself a slice of chocolate cake or a muffin or something. This heavy solidity here? If you ask me—it’s what makes a brownie a brownie.

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Preheat the oven to 175°C. Line your baking pan with a layer of baking paper or aluminum foil. Place the butter in a medium saucepan over low heat and add the salt. When the butter has melted, turn off the heat and add the chocolate, allowing it to melt gently. Stir to combine and add the sugar without beating in any air. Next make sure that both the mixture and pan have cooled a bit and add the eggs and vanilla. Mix very well, but do not beat or whisk. Add the flour (unsifted) and the cocoa (sifted to break up any lumps) and mix thoroughly without overmixing.

Bonus: no-mess prep in a single saucepan.

If you want to add fruit or nuts, now is the time. Pour into the prepared pan and bake in a preheated oven for 25-35 minutes or until done. A toothpick inserted near the edges should come out nearly clean. The center needs to be set but still moist enough to make you wonder if it’s a little but underdone.

You can dig in right away. A fresh-from-the-oven warm brownie is a decadent treat, especially in a dessert bowl with glugs of fudge sauce and mounds of vanilla ice cream. But for me the real magic happens when you chill your brownie overnight and serve it straight from the fridge, carved into bite-sized cubes truffle-style. That to me is the ultimate textural chocolate experience.
 

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD POLISH VERSION / WERSJA POLSKA

Evenings in Warsaw

More remarkable even than the beauty of the setting sun over Warszawa may be the fact that in the almost-ten years I’ve been admiring this view it never occurred to me to photograph it until this year. (Last year, some of you might recall, all I saw were airplanes and helicopters.) Now, if the view were new, or my camera were new, that might explain a few things, but my camera is an entry-level digital SLR manufactured by Canon in 2005, and it’s nearly as old as the view. A decade older still is the lens I use to capture these light shows in the sky: my trusty fixed-focal-length 2.8 aperture 200mm L-series workhorse. And what a lens it is—solid and gentle, long and bright, enduring. Considering just how dated and unremarkable the camera body is by today’s standards, it’s clear that all of the magic in these images must reside in the lens.

Except, maybe, for whatever magic it was that finally graced the photographer with her present inspiration.

All images taken by Natalia Osiatynska in the spring of 2014. All rights reserved (though I’m inclined to allow most attributed non-profit applications). 

Those lemon bars... you’re always asking about

Originally developed by pre-eminent food blogger and cookbook author David Lebovitz, this clever and simple dessert is much more than the sum of its parts. Neither too sweet nor too tart, it features a lively smooth lemon topping balanced by a crunchy, buttery vanilla crust. It is the perfect light dessert for this time of year, with the weather warm and summertime refreshment already on our minds, but seasonal fruit not yet available.  At our house it is also our favorite Easter mazurek.

Until now, I’ve always passed along the link to the original recipe, but having made this over a dozen times (possibly over two dozen times, or maybe three dozen times...), I’ve amassed some tips of my own that compel me to produce a separate version of the recipe. I’m also pleased to offer a Polish translation for the folks who prefer it. Whichever language version you decide to follow—you might be surprised by just how easy this is to make.
 

CLICK TO DOWNLOAD POLISH VERSION / WERSJA POLSKA
 

CRUST INGREDIENTS

140g plain flour (about 1 cup)
50g sugar (¼ cup)
¼ teaspoon salt
115g butter, melted (½ cup)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
 

FILLING INGREDIENTS

2 whole small lemons
200g sugar (1 cup)
¼ teaspoon salt
1 rounded tablespoon potato flour or cornstarch
3 eggs (at room temperature)
45g butter, melted and cooled (3 tablespoons
 

METHOD

Preheat the oven to 180°. Line a 20cm square baking pan (or its circular equivalent) with a layer of baking paper or aluminum foil. Melt both quantities of butter.

To assemble the crust, whisk together the flour, sugar and salt. Use a spatula to combine the dry ingredients with the butter and vanilla. Press the resulting soft dough evenly into the prepared pan and bake at 180° for 20-25 minutes. (You’ll want the crust to turn slightly golden and give off a toasty aroma before you proceed.)

While the crust is in the oven, assemble the filling. Cut up one of the lemons into slices or chunks and remove the seeds. Squeeze the juice of the other lemon. Combine the lemon chunks, lemon juice, salt and sugar in a blender and pulse until smooth. Add the eggs and potato starch and blend again. Just before the crust is ready, add the melted butter and blend until well combined.

When the crust is ready, turn down the oven temperature to 150° and slide out the oven shelf containing the baking pan. Immediately pour in the blended filling ingredients, making sure to pour gently from just above the crust. Return the baking pan to the cooling oven for a further 25 minutes.
 

SOME HELPFUL NOTES

  • If using a baking pan with a significantly larger surface area, consider doubling the recipe or multiplying it by a factor of one-and-a-half.
  • You can melt both quantities of butter together. You can use it still warmed in the crust but let it cool a bit before adding it to the filling ingredients.
  • If you wish to add real vanilla beans to the crust, add a pinch to a spoon of the butter and mix well before blending with the rest of the crust ingredients.
  • Don’t skip the salt.
  • When I make these, I use unrefined pale-golden sugar in the crust but white sugar in the filling to show off the vibrant yellow of the yolks and lemon zest.
  • Choose a ripe, thin-skinned lemon, lime-sized or slighlty larger, to use whole in the filling. (Lebovitz indicates slightly larger lemons than the ones I tend to use, but I find the tartness oberbearing when there is too much lemon juice and pulp in the mix.)
  • Scrub that lemon well if it is conventionally grown.
  • Use a standing blender if you have one. It will liquify that lemon and emulsify the filling ingredients more thoroughly than the handheld kind.
  • Assemble the filling while the crust is baking so it is ready to pour right away. If the crust cools before the filling is poured, the result won’t be as delightfully solid and crunchy.
  • Pour the filling very gently: the just-baked crust is fragile. I use a measuring cup to “catch” the filling as it pours from my tall blender jug and tilt the cup gently to distribute the filling without displacing the crust.
  • I store these bars in their original pan, uncovered, on a shelf in my refrigerator—but I can do this because I’m meticulous about not keeping anything smelly in my fridge. If you have cold cuts, smoked fish, garlicky pickles or any other pungent foods in your refrigerator, protect your dessert with plenty of plastic wrap.

Do I like people? A quiz

  1. When traveling alone on a train, do I prefer (a) to have someone to sit with, for company, or do I prefer (b) empty seats all around, so that no one will disturb me?

  2. Do I prefer (a) dogs or (b) cats? or (b) doglike cats? or (b) catlike dogs?

  3. In friendships, do I seek (b) identification or (a) discovery?

  4. When the phone rings, do I (a) spring to pick it up with excitement or (b) recoil momentarily and hesitate before I answer?

  5. Do I prefer to look at (a) my own pictures of others or (b) other people’s pictures of me?

  6. Do I more often find myself (a) able to remember people who don’t remember me or (b) unable to remember people who do remember me?

  7. Do I prefer (a) to visit other people or (b) for people to visit me?

  8. Do I sometimes go for days without contacting anybody? (a if no; b if yes)

Photo by Natalia Osiatynska, 2008.

Answers

The answers are irrelevant. The very fact that you took the time to take this quiz means that you are highly self-involved and generally uninterested in other people. Normal people do not wonder whether they like others (including even you). It is obvious to them that they do. Right now they are probably tallying up their answers to the “What kind of helper are you?” quiz, available elsewhere.

Note: Copyright Natalia Osiatynska. First published in Y Sin Embargo in 2008.

Balanced

The lunch tray at the train depot in Sapporo, Japan, was the Goldilocks of lunches, balanced in every regard—neither too small nor too big, slow yet fast and as indulgent as it was austere. It consisted of three small chicken meatballs, takuan pickled radish, miso soup and onigiri rice balls wrapped in nori, one with salmon, the other with an ume pickled plum. Photo by Natalia Osiatynska. taken in 2009 with the Ricoh GR Digital 2.

Spring. Renewal, rebirth, awakening. The seasonal equivalent of a sunrise. Thus, maybe also the seasonal equivalent of the East.

From there, it’s not a stretch to suggest that springtime is for Asian fare. Think about it. We’re done eating stew. We want lighter, vibrant foods. Eagerly we wait for the local radishes and bunches of asparagus to catch up with the times. Alas, we’re relegated to food that’s been flown to our shops from the Antipodes. Here’s an idea: instead of preempting the local spring offering, we can embrace this vernal break from being good locavores to explore Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai or Korean. It’s a way to fill our bodies with nutrients and sensations we haven’t been getting. It’s a way to cut out dairy, wheat, meat or all of the above—without deprivation. It’s a way to diet without dieting, travel without traveling. It’s a (fascinating, sensual, complicated) shortcut to restoring balance, and isn’t restoring balance really what springtime is all about?

Balance appears absolute: just enough without spilling over into too much; necessity and sufficiency; speed and endurance; lightness and strength. Achieving balance, however, is a subtle, relative quest. What is needed, after all, depends on what is missing. And excess? Excess must go.

At our house, when we want to restore balance, we make Japanese.